Frances Arnold's directed evolution
At first glance, the large photographs in chemical engineer and biochemist Frances Arnold’s window-lit Caltech office in Pasadena, California look like abstract paintings of uneven landscapes and turbulent seasides. But upon further inspection, the photos of French photographer Yann Arthus-Betrand reveal sprawling landfills and polluted waters. These photos serve as daily reminders of why Arnold comes into work every day; she’s trying to save the Earth from more needless destruction.
“I wanted to use chemistry to solve human problems,” she said about her work. “I planted my stake in the ground 30 years ago…and I’ve never stopped.”
Arnold, 56, is credited with pioneering the methods of “directed evolution,” used to “develop organisms and produce renewable fuels and chemicals.” The Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry professor at Caltech has cropped blonde hair and holds a composed presence that churns with excitement when she speaks on her scientific endeavors. But Arnold, a child of the ’60s and ’70s who participated in protests, said, “I didn’t know I would become a scientist."
The “hippie mom,” as her three sons have nicknamed her, majored in mechanical engineering at Princeton. A brief stint working at the Solar Energy Research Institute, created under the Carter Administration in response to the first oil crisis, gave Arnold a glimpse of the beginning of the green technology and renewable energy revolution.
When she attended Berkeley as a chemical engineering graduate student, she “fell in love with biochemistry and the new field of biotechnology.” Genetic engineering opened a new world for “manipulating the chemistry of life” and soon the question of how to “take what nature has given us and reengineer it to solve problems” became the overarching focus to her field of research.
Using evolution to rewrite biology, Arnold has dedicated her work to understanding the process of directing evolution to create new molecules and organisms in the lab, including catalysts for producing fuels and chemicals that could eventually replace pollutant-causing material.
“What I’m hoping is that we’ll stop pumping oil out of the ground because we’ll have an alternative,” said Arnold.
One of Arnold’s current focuses in directing evolution is on “understanding the role of sex and recombination in evolution.”
When asked to speak about this at a TEDx talk in May at the University of Southern California, Arnold told the audience, “Genomes…are intricate. They’re stunningly beautiful, beautiful like a Beethoven symphony. And we don’t know how to write music like that.”
Not yet, anyway.
Arnold hopes to one day be able to write new genes through directed evolution. Her group manipulates and recombines the DNA of organisms from vastly different kingdoms, such as bacteria and monkeys, and combines their DNA to create new sequences that encode “everything from brain imaging agents to new catalysts…in a nutshell, we breed proteins," she explained.
As a professor, she tries to instill a confidence in her students, giving them their independence without neglecting guidance. She’s also a science advisor to various students’ startup companies like Gevo Inc., a leading renewable energy company she cofounded that’s trying to produce biofuel alternatives to petroleum.
Her role of advisor extends beyond the Caltech campus. In an effort to increase the visibility of science in mainstream entertainment, she works with the Science & Entertainment Exchange ("The Exchange"), a program of the National Academy of Sciences, acting as a resource for Hollywood screenwriters who want to bring science to the big screen in a realistic light. Arnold hopes that such depictions will pique the next generation’s interest in science.
“Kids are inspired by science heroes,” said Arnold.
Jumping from Hollywood across the pond to England, Arnold is currently serving on the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering committee, where for the first time, the Queen of England will award £1million to a group of rising engineers. The prize is meant to raise interest in engineering, and the committee hopes it will gain the prestige of the Nobel Prize, which currently does not award engineers.
Arnold will travel to Buckingham Palace next year to assist in presenting this prize. It’s one more trip she can add to her list of travel excursions, which include a scuba diving trip to the Red Sea and a year she spent traveling the world with her sons, who are perhaps even a greater reminder of her work’s ultimate goal than those large photographs in her office.
“I have three kids. I’d like to see them in a world as nice as the one I lived in.”